Why do some students struggle with reading? And how should schools intervene to support them?
These questions about perhaps the most fundamental skill schools teach—how to read—will be front and center at several of the panels and presentations at the SXSW EDU conference March 6-9, which draws educators, researchers, and education companies from all over the world.
The event, held annually in Austin, is billed as a place to foster “innovation and learning within the education industry,” largely through panels, meetups, and lectures. Reading is a big part of the lineup this year.
It’s a timely topic after several years of state legislation that’s reshaped how reading is taught across the country. Since 2019, at least 25 states and the District of Columbia have mandated that schools follow evidence-based practices for teaching young children how to read—a movement that’s come to be known as the “science of reading.”
Over the past few years, more states have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction. Look below to see which states have such legislation and when it passed.
Decades of research have shown that teaching students how letters represent sounds—providing systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics—is the most effective way to ensure that they know how to read words. But for years, many schools were using other, less effective practices for teaching word-reading, practices that made it harder for many children to learn.
Now, many school systems are starting to make changes—a shift that’s reflected in the SXSW EDU schedule. Panels include discussions about how schools are using student data to inform reading intervention, how reading-related educational technology is (or is not) research-based, and why evidence-based reading instruction is a civil rights issue.
Here are three things to know about the “science of reading” movement.
1. Passing a law doesn’t necessarily lead to immediate change
About half of the states have passed some new reading-related legislation over the past four years. But the road from passing a law to seeing instructional change in classrooms can be long.
North Carolina, for example, passed sweeping new reading legislation in 2021. It required that schools go through a new process to adopt materials, that colleges of education teach about the science of reading, and that all K-5 teachers go through intensive training in reading science.
Teachers there who spoke with Education Week said they appreciated the new knowledge that the training provided—but that they needed more time, resources, and support to put that training into practice.
“My ideal situation would be that our curriculum coach, or even district literacy coaches, would come into our school, sit all of us down, and say: ‘This is what a small group lesson is going to look like using the science of reading,’” Raul Olivares Jr., a kindergarten teacher at Eastern Elementary School in Washington, N.C., said in an interview with Education Week in spring 2022.
2. The movement to put the science of reading into law hasn’t slowed
Policymakers in at least nine states have introduced legislation during the 2023 session that relates to evidence-based reading instruction: Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Over the past few years, most of this legislation has promoted research-backed practices. But now, in a few states, these proposed bills would prohibit other practices.
Politicians in New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia are aiming to ban “cueing.” This is an approach to word-reading instruction that encourages students to rely on multiple sources of information to figure out what the letters on the page represent. They could sound the word out, but they could also look at the picture to make a guess or infer based on the context of the story.
Studies have shown that this method can take kids’ focus off of the letters, making it less likely that they’ll use their phonics skills to read. Recently, popular reading programs that have relied heavily on this approach have removed it from their products.
3. The science of reading promotes phonics instruction. But research outlines best practices for other parts of the reading process, too
Reading is a complex process that requires a lot of different skills and knowledge. Lifting the words off of the page is an essential skill. If kids can’t decode words, they can’t read. But it’s only the foundation of skilled reading. For more on how all of the components of reading work together, see this explainer.
Reading research clearly shows that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness—the ability to separate and blend individual spoken sounds—is the best way to get kids reading words. But research has a lot to say about the other parts of reading, too.